Porto is Portugal’s second-largest city, but perhaps its most captivating. What used to be a hidden gem is now a well-traversed travel destination on the northern Iberian Peninsula. And while Porto, also called Oporto, is known for wine tourism, the city has much more to offer visitors.
From admiring gorgeous architecture to experiencing the diverse dining scene, here are some of the best ways to spend a day in Porto.
Visit The City’s Most Beautiful Churches
Porto is home to a number of houses of worship. The most important of these is the Porto Cathedral, or Sé do Porto. Set upon the highest point of the city’s historic center, the church includes a cloister from the 14th century. It’s a bit of a somber spot, however, since it is set in a square where the area’s criminals were once executed. Admission to the cathedral is free, but the cloister can only be accessed for 3 euros. Please note that the cloister is only open on Sundays and religious holidays.
Another lovely religious site closer to the river is Saint Francis Church, or Igreja de São Francisco. The large Gothic structure is located in the city center, which is also a dedicated UNESCO World Heritage site. The church was founded in 1245 by the Franciscan order and has been remodeled and restored many times since then. Today, visitors can tour the church for 4 euros. Be sure to note the unique Tree of Jesse wood carving that depicts Jesus’s family tree as well as the rest of the lovely woodwork throughout the interior. You can also visit the church’s on-site catacombs.
Yet another remarkable structure is Clérigos Church; its bell tower is the tallest in all of Portugal. The building is a prime example of baroque architecture and a well-recognized symbol of the city of Porto. You can explore the church interior for free, but plan to spend 3 euros if you’d like to climb the 200+ stairs to the top of the bell tower. The breathtaking views of Porto and the Douro River make the tower a must-see spot and a lovely vantage point from which to enjoy the beauty of the city.
Just across the river in Vila Nova de Gaia is another scenic church and monastery. The Mosteiro da Serra do Pilar is a true architectural landmark in the Porto area. Designed in an unusual circular shape, the church was inspired by one in Rome: the Church of Santa Maria Rotonda, better known as the Pantheon. During its long history, Mosteiro da Serra do Pilar has served as an Augustinian monastery and a military base.
Experience A Wine Cave
As I mentioned above, Porto is a world-renowned wine destination. Even if you’re only planning to spend a day in this enchanting city, a visit to a wine cave is an absolute must. Most of the wine caves, or wine cellars, are located in Vila Nova de Gaia, just across the river from Porto. Many of them even offer their own port tastings. At a Porto wine cave, you can sample the area’s famous port without traveling an hour to the vineyards themselves in the Douro Valley.
One great wine cave option is the Croft cellar. Croft is the oldest port producer in the area and even offers a rosé port to enjoy. Expect to try both tawny and ruby ports, too, plus snacks for about 13 euros. For visitors ages 8 to 17, there’s a tasting option of juice and cookies for 5 euros. A Croft tasting includes a guided tour of the wine cellars, where you can learn about the fascinating history of the Douro Valley and Porto’s most important export. (The wine used to be transported from the valley to the cellars via special barges on the river.) This option is perfect for those with limited time in the city.
Not a fan of port? Consider a sip of the region’s other famous wine, vinho verde. Also called green wine, this is an herby white wine that is reminiscent of a crisp sauvignon blanc.
See The Famous Azulejos Tiles
Another great thing to do in Porto is to go looking for the city’s trademark glazed ceramic tiles, or azulejos. These tiles are distinctly Portuguese and are usually blue and white in color. Often, these works of public art depict historical, cultural, or religious scenes, and many date all the way back to the 13th century.
In Porto, they can be found all over the city, but one excellent spot to admire them is the São Bento railway station. The station is home to more than 20,000 beautiful azulejos that portray the history of Portugal. São Bento is located in a central area of Porto near Almeida Garrett Square.
Explore The Ribeira
One of Porto’s coolest neighborhoods, the Ribeira, or riverside quarter, is also one of the city’s oldest enclaves. It’s a UNESCO World Heritage site filled with tons to see and do. One of its most famous features is the Palácio da Bolsa. Built in the 19th century and once home to the stock exchange, the palace showcases a variety of architectural styles. Don’t miss the gorgeous Moorish Revival room! Guided tours are offered every half hour for just 7.50 euros for adults and 4 euros for seniors. Admission is free for those under 12. Conveniently, the palace is right next door to the aforementioned Saint Francis Church.
Once you’ve toured the palace, spend some time wandering the Ribeira and its colorful cobblestone streets. But for the best views of the area as well as the city itself, look no further than the iconic Dom Luís I Bridge. The intricate iron framework is reminiscent of the famed Eiffel Tower, and for good reason: The designer was a student of Gustave Eiffel. Pedestrian access is available on both of the bridges’ two levels that span the Douro River, connecting Porto to Vila Nova de Gaia. The top level offers the best vista in all of Porto, but it is nearly 200 feet above the river, so don’t head up if you’re afraid of heights!
When you’re ready to leave, rather than making the steep walk away from the river, consider hitching a ride on the Funicular dos Guindais, which connects the riverfront to the Rua da Batalha. A one-way ride only costs 2.50 euros. For those in good physical condition, a walk is a great way to exit the Ribeira, too. But keep in mind that the pretty views from the funicular are hard to beat.
Eating In Porto
You simply must make time for some delicious Portuguese cuisine during your time in Porto. After all, trying the food is one of the best ways to truly experience a culture and get to know a country. Here are a few dishes and spots that should be on any Porto itinerary.
First up is the famed Portuguese egg tart, or pastéis de nata. It originated in Lisbon and has since become the breakfast of champions in Portugal. The best spot to nab one of these decadent custards in Porto is the Confeitaria do Bolhão; there’s even a takeout counter for those in a hurry to explore the city.
The official sandwich of Porto is the sinful francesinha, which is basically grilled cheese on steroids. My Portuguese friend lovingly calls it “a heart attack on a plate.” After a night out drinking port, head to the Snack Bar Pontual for this delicious sammie. If you’d rather enjoy it earlier in the day, there are many other eateries in town that feature the dish; just be sure to peruse the menu beforehand to ensure the restaurant offers the famous francesinha.
Considered one of the most beautiful cafés in the world, the Majestic Café is a must-visit restaurant for travelers to Porto. It’s worth seeing just for its ornate interior, but the coffee is amazing, too. I recommend stopping for a cup while on your way to the nearby São Bento train station.
If you’re willing to splurge for a great meal, don’t miss the chance to dine with the well-known Portuguese chef, José Avillez, at his Porto outpost, Cantinho do Avillez. Not only is this a Michelin-star restaurant, but this urban bistro offers fun twists on traditional Portuguese cuisine. Don’t miss the mushroom risotto and bacalhau, or cod, which is the national dish of Portugal.
If you’re looking for something more budget friendly, visit the fancy McDonald’s that locals call the Imperial McDonald’s.
Shopping In Porto
When in Porto, be sure to set aside time to shop at some of the area’s unique purveyors. Like much of the world, the Portuguese have embraced the sustainable method of shopping called thrifting. Check out Mon Père for some cool vintage finds.
Porto is also known for its stunning and ornate bookshop, Livraria Lello. Hailed as one of the most beautiful bookstores in the world, the shop is rumored to have inspired Harry Potter author J. K. Rowling during her time living in Porto. Be aware that since this is a tourist hot spot, you’ll likely have to wait in line a bit. Also, there’s a small entrance fee of 5 euros, but you’ll be reimbursed if you buy something inside the shop.
Another great shopping experience in Porto is the Bolhão Market, which dates to 1893. The two-story market hosts vendors selling flowers, fruit, fish, wine, and more. It’s a great spot to interact with locals and get an authentic taste of the city.
It’s easy to see that a day might not be enough time to fully appreciate the charming city of Porto. From its great dining and shopping options to its beautiful churches and neighborhoods, Porto is a must-see city in Europe.
Want to spend more time in Portugal? Head to the Duoro Valley for some wine tasting or spend a couple of days in the capital city of Lisbon. Whatever you do, you’re sure to fall even more in love with this Iberian country.